SALT LAKE CITY — The bedraggled girl walked six dusty miles to a gas station pay phone and punched in 911. Then she did what she was taught never to do: She told. Help me, she said to the sheriff. My father beat me when I ran away from an arranged marriage with my uncle. I was his 15th wife.
With one phone call to an outside world she scarcely knew, the battered 16-year-old gave voice to silent women who live within the secretive constraints of polygamy. Her tale of child abuse, incest and intermarriage has been the catalyst for the recent arrests of two patriarchs of the largest polygamous clan in the state and sparked unusually open debate about what one former polygamous wife calls "Utah's dirty little secret."
The three months since that phone call have brought a raft of questions in a state that is only now coming to grips with its legacy of widespread plural marriages. One academic study a generation ago estimated the number of people living in polygamy in Utah at 30,000; those fighting the practice today believe the number is two or three times that.
Once the code of silence was broken, there was a flow of outrage, incredulity and, for some women, confession. On radio talk shows, in newspapers and across kitchen tables, Utahans are hashing over disturbing allegations about the human toll.
Allegations include evidence of large-scale welfare fraud by polygamy wives claiming to be single mothers. An investigation by the Salt Lake Tribune uncovered one polygamy community in which 33% of the residents are dependent on food stamps.
Critics say the practice leads to pregnant women with no prenatal care, children who never see doctors and huge families with no health or dental insurance. Girls as young as 10 are forced into arranged marriages, they say. And the state harbors people who live their lives as societal ciphers, with no birth certificates, no driver's license, who don't pay taxes and never vote.
Finally, the former polygamy wives say they've seen rampant incest and child abuse. In the recent case of the girl who called authorities, her uncle was charged with unlawful sexual conduct and is awaiting arraignment. Her father was charged with felony child abuse, has pled not guilty and is awaiting trial.
Amid the debate, a group proposing legalizing polygamy in Utah has sprung up, calling itself Women's Religious Liberties Union, led by Mary Potter. Potter said her group does not support plural marriages in which women have no power. She acknowledged that sexual abuse exists in polygamy but said it is also a problem in monogamous families.
"We ask to be left alone and to worship as we please," Potter said.
Polygamists have been backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, which defends their right to practice their religion. Meanwhile, leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which once allowed multiple wives, have stayed out of the fray, stressing that the Mormon church banned polygamy in the 19th century.
Leading the cautionary chorus is Tapestry of Polygamy, an advocacy group of former polygamy wives who have marched on the Capitol to alert officials to what they say are the evils of plural marriage.
According to Rowenna Erickson, the group's founder, what they have to say is so stunning that "we can't tell all we know--it's incomprehensible."
Child Learns to Keep Family Secrets
Dianne, a high-ranking member of the Tapestry group, grew up a child of polygamy. She was the 25th of 31 children. Her mother was the third wife of four. For years the sister-wives lived in separate houses, but when Dianne was 7 the entire extended family moved into one large home, she said.
As a child, Dianne learned to keep the family secrets. Don't invite friends home. Tell everyone that your brothers and sisters are your cousins. Pretend not to hear when kids at school belittle your unstylish long dresses and shabby shoes.
"I learned that there was Them and there was Us," said Dianne. "I didn't want to wear weird clothes. I wanted to fit in. My mother explained it by saying we're living a higher law that the world doesn't understand."
Dianne was pulled from school in the fifth grade and was home schooled. The children seldom went to the movies, they were alowed to watch only approved television programs and the only musical options were hymns.
Within the family, her father was a terrifying figure, as were her brothers. Girls and women were taught to never question male authority. It was not until years later that Dianne understood the roots of her fear.
"At 13, my brother was molesting me," she said, sitting in Tapestry of Polygamy's borrowed office in Salt Lake City. "I asked for justice. I was told that we need to let my brother be what he was going to be. So I learned that my body wasn't even my own. I was like a zombie. A walking piece of flesh.